Californian Wildfires Were Much Worse In The Past

  • Date: 24/08/20
  • Michael Shellenberger, Forbes

Scientists calculate that, before Europeans arrived, 4.4 million acres of California burned annually, which is 16 times larger than the amount that burned in 2019.

Graph showing that the amount of California that burns annually has declined 80% since the arrival of Europeans
The amount of California that burns annually has declined 80% since the arrival of EuropeansENVIRONMENTAL PROGRESS

Fires have burned 1.3 million acres of California’s forests over the last month. That’s one million acres more than burned last year, and is an unusually high number for this early in the fire season.

California political leaders including Governor Gavin Newsom and Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, blame climate change.

“If you are in denial about climate change, come to California,” Governor Gavin Newsom told the Democratic National Convention. “11,000 dry lightning strikes we had over a 72 hour period [led] to this unprecedented challenge with these wildfires.”

The New York Times NYT +0.4%CBS News, and other news outlets have reported that the wildfires destroyed a forest of ancient redwood trees in Big Basin state park.Recommended For You

“Hundreds of trees burned at Big Basin Redwoods State Park,” reportedThe New York Times. “Park officials closed it on Wednesday, another casualty of the wildfires that have wracked the state with a vengeance that has grown more apocalyptic every year.”

“The protected trees, some 2,500 years old, were nearly wiped out by loggers in the 1800s,” claimed CBS News’ Jonathan Vigliotti. “N,ow human-caused climate change has damaged or destroyed many of these ancient giants.”

“Big Basin Redwoods State Park has burned through,” reported New York Magazine’s David Wallace-Wells, pointing to climate change as the cause. “Some, older than Muhammad, had stood for a thousand years by the time Europeans set foot in North America. The youngest are older than the Black Death.”

But every school child who has visited one of California’s redwood parks knows from reading the signs at the visitor’s center and in front of the trailheads that old-growth redwood forests need fire to survive and thrive. 

Heat from fire is required for the release and germination of redwood seeds, and to burn up the woody debris on the forest floor. The thick bark on old-growth redwood trees provides evidence of many past fires.

And, indeed, video footage taken by two San Jose Mercury News reporters, who hiked into Big Basin after the fire, shows the vast majority of trees still standing. What was burned up was the visitor’s center and other park infrastructure.

Nor is it the case that California’s fires have “grown more apocalyptic every year,” as the New York Times reported. In fact, 2019 saw a remarkably small amount of acreage burn, just 280,000 acres compared to 1.3 million and 1.6 million in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

What about this year’s fires? “I see [the current California fires] as a normal event, just not one that happens every year,” Jon Keely, a leading forest scientist, told me. 

“On July 30, 2008, we had massive fires throughout northern California due to a series of lightning fires in the middle of the summer,” he said. “It’s not an annual event, but it’s not an unusual event.”

California’s fires should indeed serve as a warning to the public, but not that climate change is causing the apocalypse. Rather, it should serve as a warning that mainstream new reporters and California’s politicians cannot be trusted to tell the truth about climate change and fires.  

It’s Not About The Climate

Nobody denies climate change is occurring and playing a role in warmer temperatures and heatwaves. Keely notes that, since 1960, the variation in spring and summer temperatures explain 50% of the variation in fire frequency and intensity from one year to the next.

But the half-century since 1960 is the same period in which the U.S. government promoted, mostly out of ignorance, the suppression of regular fires which most forests need to allow for new growth.

For much of the 20th Century, U.S. agencies and private landowners suppressed fires as a matter of policy. The results were disastrous: the accumulation of wood fuel resulting in fires that burn so hot they sometimes kill the forest, turning it into shrubland.

The US government started to allow forests in national parks to burn more in the 1960s, and allowed a wider set of forests on public lands to burn starting in the 1990s. 

“When I hear climate change discussed it’s suggested that it’s a major reason and it’s not,” Scott Stevens of the University of California, Berkeley, told me.

Redwood forests before Europeans arrived burned every 6 to 25 years. The evidence comes from fire scars on barks and the bases of massive ancient trees, hollowed out by fire, like the one depicted in The New York Times photograph.

“There was severe heat before the lightning that dried-out [wood] fuel,” noted Stevens. “But in Big Basin [redwood park], where fire burned every seven to ten years, there is a high-density of fuel build-up, especially in the forests.”

In 1904, three large fires burned Big Basin for 20 days, scorching the crowns of many trees, just as the 2020 fire did. 

Reporters for The New York Times were apparently as pyrophobic 116 years ago as they are today, reporting that year that Big Basin, “seems doomed for destruction.” 

But redwood forests regularly burn. A 2003 fire in Humboldt Redwoods State Park burned 13,774. Forest in 2008 burned over 165,000 acres. And a 2016 fire burned 130,000 acres. 

Climate activists who in the winter excoriate those, like Senator James Inhofe, for pointing to snow as proof that global warming isn’t happening, turn around and point to summer fires as proof that it is.

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